Novelist, poet and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist made an impressive literary debut in 1981 with her book of short stories, "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams." Her 1984 collection, "Victory Over Japan," won that year's National Book Award for fiction. Since then, more than a dozen books--story collections, novels, autobiographical nonfiction--have appeared: a mixed bag, in which can be found much that is poignant, funny, charming, wry, moving, even wise, but also much that is coy, preachy, self-satisfied, well-nigh insufferable.
By and large, it seems fair to say that Gilchrist's short fiction has been stronger than her novels. And, indeed, her new collection, "Flights of Angels," contains many stories that well display her talents. Most of these 18 stories are set in the author's native South: Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina or the little town of Fayetteville, Ark., although one takes place in Los Angeles.
Some stories are linked by a common narrator. In "Miss Crystal Confronts the Past" and "A Sordid Tale, or, Traceleen Continues Talking," our cicerone, Traceleen, is the longtime housekeeper and confidante of Crystal, a middle-aged woman who's managed to break away from her old-style, male chauvinist upbringing but who can never entirely evade the pull of family ties.